By Jim Gehman, Player Engagement Insider
A rookie free agent in 2011, Middle Tennessee State running back and Dallas native Phillip Tanner signed with his hometown team. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d earn money at a Cowboys game.
“I started when I was 11, 12 years old selling concessions for my summer track team, Texas Heat. We sold pizza and nachos,” Tanner said. “I did that probably to when I was getting ready to leave for college. I would get in trouble because I would sneak out and watch the games. I got caught often, but it was worth it. It was definitely worth it.”
Tanner proved his worth early. In only the second preseason game – vs. the then-San Diego Chargers at Cowboys Stadium – he made his way into the end zone with a little less than the necessary equipment.
However, it wasn’t a touchdown. A new rule stated that a play is immediately called dead when the ball carrier loses his helmet.
“A lot of people still remember me from that moment,” Tanner said. “The run was about 40 yards. (My helmet got knocked off) probably 5, 10 yards into the run. But the play being called dead because of the new rule change didn’t take away from the moment at all. I kept the ball and I have the helmet sitting in my office at work.”
Following three years with the Cowboys and part of a fourth season with the San Francisco 49ers, Tanner chose to leave the game.
“I wanted to go from being successful to being significant. I thought about all the things I wanted to do in life and I achieved them all,” Tanner said. “But then I thought about the people that needed my help, was I able to significantly impact their lives? And the answer was, no.”
After a stint as a graduate assistant coach at Middle Tennessee State, Tanner made his way back home to Dallas and took a job as an athletic director at an inner-city charter middle school. He’s now a physical education teacher, track coach and the football team’s offensive coordinator at his alma mater, Justin F. Kimball High School.
“That’s just what it is on paper. I’m a mentor; I’m a father, friend, counselor all in one. I definitely enjoy that,” Tanner said. “It means everything. I speak to my guys all the time about Harriet Tubman, and her being my biggest role model. [Tubman escaped slavery to become a leading abolitionist. She led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom along the route of the Underground Railroad.]
“Not only did she find a way to work her tail off to get out through all the adversity and obstacles against her, she then turned around and went and helped other people out. So, it’s kind of my vision. I was able to get out of the inner-city with all of the odds that were stacked against me. And now I’m turned around and going back, being that Harriet Tubman, to help every other child that wants to get out and just do not know how. I want to help them in every way possible to get out and better their lives.
“Good coaches win games; great coaches save lives. I don’t call it giving back, I call it paying it forward. To be able to impact young men’s lives, young women’s lives, it’s truly priceless.”
A 2006 graduate of Kimball H.S., it wasn’t too long ago that Tanner was in the same shoes as those young men and women.
“It’s funny because when they first meet me, the questions are, of course, how was the NFL? Why would you leave the NFL and come here? Did you get released? Did they not want you? Once I explain to them and I show them text messages from my agent Christina (Phillips) how teams still were trying to fly me out, I tell the guys it was my decision to walk away from the game to help them.
“At first, they don’t get it. But weeks and months of them being around me, they start seeing, ‘Oh, his heart is really here with us.’”